Yesterday, our domestic help Balamma announced she will not turn up on Monday saying she has to go to the ration shop in her neighbourhood to collect her free saree from the ration shop. This was part of a three-day saree distribution drive undertaken by the K Chandrasekhar Rao government, ahead of Dussehra when the women of Telangana celebrate the Bathukamma festival by dancing around floral arrangements.
In all, 1.04 crore sarees will be distributed by Wednesday to women below the poverty line. The Telangana government had shelled out Rs 222 crore for this attempt to reach out to women, the sartorial way.
Just about the entire KCR cabinet, Telangana Rashtra Samiti's elected representatives and district administration were involved in the exercise to distribute sarees. While half the sarees, 52 lakh of them, were procured by weavers in Telangana, mainly Sircilla, which is KCR's son KT Rama Rao's constituency, the remaining sarees were imported from Surat in Gujarat.
On paper, this sounds like a politically sensible thing to do, in line with the culture of freebies that has been found to be electorally prudent in Tamil Nadu. After all, KCR has already tasted success with two other welfare schemes he had borrowed earlier from Chennai. The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation opened canteens on the lines of Amma canteens, providing subsidised food to its patrons. On the lines of the Amma kit containing essentials for newborns and young mothers, the Telangana government has started distributing KCR kit to the same target population.
But the Bathukamma sarees were trying to hit several targets with one drape. It was an attempt to ensure the majority community did not feel aggrieved over the gifts in the form of clothes that are given just before Eid to over 2 lakh poor Muslims. At a time when the BJP is targeting him for pampering Muslims by increasing reservations for them - from 4 per cent to 12 per cent - every Saree counts at the EVM.
Bathukamma is an important cultural festival and symbol of Telangana and this freebie is also a welfare scheme being dovetailed into identity politics.
Except that things did not quite go according to plan. With most women believing the early bird will get the free saree, the distribution centres could not take the pressure of the huge number of women who had turned up. Brawls broke out, some of them turning extremely ugly. The worst pictures came in from a distribution centre in Saidabad in Hyderabad, where several women punched and pulled each other's hair, with the police struggling to control them. In other districts, women expressed dissatisfaction and anger over the quality of sarees that had been distributed.
``You are giving us a saree for one hundred rupees and making us lose an entire day's wage for getting this by standing in such a long queue,'' said one woman. Another one said even beggars even wear better sarees. ``Why give such sarees? Did we beg for it?'' she said.
At some places, the sarees were burnt by irate women, with some of them even dancing around the bonfire in a circle, the way they do around the Bathukamma.
The diatribe also turned personal at some places. ``These sarees are not handloom. These are not worth more than 50 to 60 rupees. Will Kavitha (KCR's daughter and Nizamabad MP) wear a saree of this quality and dance during the Bathakamma festival?''
Though it had been marketed as the distribution of handloom sarees, on offer were synthetic sarees, punching a hole in the narrative that the attempt was to help the weavers of Telangana. Officials had claimed that the government with this effort, had provided work for over two and a half months to Sircilla weavers, giving them a business of Rs 70 crore. The quality of the sarees belied the claim.
Realising the negative voices were gaining traction on social media and vernacular channels, giving the government a bad name, by evening, interviews with women praising the effort too started streaming in. It was to ensure that the rest of India did not feel it was a Saree state of affairs in Telangana.
But beyond the din and the ugly scenes, the larger political motive clearly is to step into poll mode in Telangana. With 20 months to go for elections, KCR is banking on freebies in the form of sarees to woo the woman vote. The TRS clearly hopes that just like Amma mixie-grinder and fans played a part in Jayalalithaa's election victories, the sarees will be a vehicle to electoral success come 2019.
But what the government did not realise is that it played upon the sentiment of the women in the bargain. The ugly brawls demeaned the women of Telangana. Most of them said the establishment had insulted them by gifting them such a cheap quality saree.
Freebies should ideally bring about a meaningful difference to someone's life, more so ahead of a festival. The problem with this tokenism is that ultimately no one will wear the saree, making it a wasteful drain on the state resource.